If work is supposed to be fun, I’m having a ball. For the past year I’ve been working on a project that feeds my soul and in the words of the old Native American Chief in the film Little Big Man “causes my heart to soar like a hawk.” Quiet Courage, a film documentary on my good friend James Owens gets my juices flowing.
James Owens has been my friend since 1970. We were pioneers of college football integration at Auburn University. When we played black players in the Southeastern conference of college football were relegated to one or two per team.
In comparison to James I had it easy. He was the first African American football player in Auburn’s history.
The loneliness, the slurs, the suppression of hurts and emotions stayed with me a long time. It was three decades before I could express it in this manner or any manner. It was many years before I could bring myself to talk about it with my wife and son. Just couldn’t. It was too painful.
But this isn’t about me: Nor about the pain. It’s about my friend and his forty-year relationship with Auburn University.
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” James tells me. “I had no idea of the magnitude of being the first black.”
In 1969, James Owens realized a portion of Martin Luther King’s dream. He fulfilled the legacy of Jackie Robinson. He answered prayers of many blacks and some whites in the state of Alabama by answering Auburn’s call to play football at the University. What has followed over the last forty years is a love story.
Not knowing what to do to aid their only black football player and only the second black athlete in Auburn Athletic history, Auburn attempted to treat James as if he was no different than the other athletes. “We treat all our athletes the same” was the philosophy.
Imagine being the only white among a team of blacks. Imagine being the only white in a University of 15,000 blacks where everyone, students, alumni, whites and blacks examine your every move. Imagine there are so few people who look like you on the campus, that your social life consists of sitting in the TV room after games while all your teammates are out partying and enjoying the spoils of victory. Imagine being seventeen and having no family, nearby. Imagine possessing a second rate education, a by-product of segregation that leaves you inadequate in the classroom. Imagine.
Quiet Courage explores these issues and others as told by James, his teammates former coaches and friends. It’s introspective, funny, sad, and full of love. Mistakes were made. James did not graduate. He didn’t play professional football. The University brought him back as a graduate assistant to get his degree. The rules were changed and he was asked to leave. He wandered. Jobs came and went. His wife Gloria who he met when she became one of the few black women at Auburn his senior year, became his salvation.
Then he found the ministry. Saving souls was as tough as scoring against bigotry, but it was more rewarding. His church was only forty miles from where he’d made history, but he didn’t venture close to campus. Nor did the University reach out to him. Love relationships are like that.
Fate intervened. His nephew, Ladarious signed a scholarship to play football at Auburn. James was drawn back to his Alma Mater. This time it was different. Auburn loved him back. Auburn Athletics created the James Owens Award of Courage to honor him. He received his award and a standing ovation in front of 86,00 Auburn fans. Auburn named him an Auburn legend and he was honored at the SEC Legends dinner with other legends from the conference before the 2012 championship game.
Life was good. He was back in the fold. His teammates honored him as the soul of the 10-1, 1972 team known as the Amazins, one of the favored teams in Auburn history.
Then came the diagnosis. His heart was failing. Tears followed. His teammates and the University rallied to his side. Letters, phone calls, and loads of love poured in.
Yes. He realized, they loved him, not only as a football player but, as James Owens, the human being who notched his name in the Auburn history book.
He had one regret. He never received his degree.
The phone call from the Auburn administrators shocked him. The robe, the march, the arena full of the Auburn family, his name called, the honorary degree handed to him, his acceptance speech. He was an Auburn University graduate.
They were back together again, a happy ending. Just like in the movies.